Dr. Mary Heinricher receives Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award for pain research

Dr. Mary HeinricherFebruary 21, 2017

Mary Heinricher, Ph.D., associate dean of basic research and professor of neurological surgery, OHSU School of Medicine, has received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The Javits Award is presented to distinguished investigators who have made exceptional achievements in the field of neurological science and are expected to continue to produce cutting-edge research in the coming years.

The prestigious award, which provides funding up to $2.3M over seven years, will support Dr. Heinricher's ongoing work to trace out brain circuitry linking light to increased pain in order to determine how and why it can be activated to produce abnormal pain.

"We know that the brain actively controls our sensitivity to pain," said Dr. Heinricher. "My lab studies the primary brain circuits responsible for this, and we've shown in animal models that these circuits contribute to chronic pain. What we are focusing on here is the fact that many patients with chronic pain also complain of abnormal sensitivity to light, sound and smell. Because of this, their pain was sometimes dismissed as 'all in their head,' but we showed recently in rats that light exposure can activate the pain-controlling circuits to lower the pain threshold."

"The award is going to give us the time to focus on our science, and I hope, extend our work to understanding abnormal photosensitivity in patients with chronic pain," said Dr. Heinricher. "We hope that light could be a window into chronic pain in the brain. That if, is we can validate the neural mechanisms of photosensitivity in chronic pain states, it could serve as a relatively simple, non-invasive marker of brain changes that underlie chronic pain. Such a marker would guide treatment, reduce ineffective treatments (surgery and opioids would not be appropriate for these patients) and even suggest options for modifying the light environment for these patients."

She credits her research staff, particularly Melissa Martenson, M.S., research associate, OHSU, with first seeing activation of the pain-modulating neurons by light and realizing its significance. 

Dr. Heinricher earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Northwestern University in 1983 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience from UCSF in 1986. She currently serves as vice chair of research for the Department of Neurological Surgery, OHSU School of Medicine.

"The Javits Award is a paramount honor bestowed on a researcher who is a leader in his or her field and who has made numerous substantial contributions at the leading edge of neuroscience," said Mary Stenzel-Poore, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research, OHSU School of Medicine. "Mary is that very leader in the field of pain research. She has consistently made high-impact contributions to this field which have led to a new understanding of the neural cells and complex connections that modulate pain."

The Javits Award, established by Congress in 1983, is named in honor of the late Senator Jacob Javits of New York, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and was a strong advocate for research on neurological disorders.